Coliseum stands ready to shelter storm victims

By John Underwood / john@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 9/1/17

ROBERTSDALE, Alabama — According to officials, the Baldwin County Coliseum stands ready if needed to serve as a storm shelter for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

“I know that they have facilities …

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Coliseum stands ready to shelter storm victims

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ROBERTSDALE, Alabama — According to officials, the Baldwin County Coliseum stands ready if needed to serve as a storm shelter for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

“I know that they have facilities in Austin and other areas that they can use, but in my mind there is no better facility than right here in Baldwin County, Alabama,” said Baldwin County Coliseum and Fairgrounds Manager A.B. “Sonny” Hankins. “This is what this facility was built for and as long as we have it here, we should always stand ready to use it to help those who are in need.”

Hankins said early in the week, he reached out to officials at FEMA’s Alabama headquarters in Clanton and to Baldwin County Commissioner Tucker Dorsey, who represents Central Baldwin’s District 3.

“I just wanted them to know that this building is ready to go if called into service,” Hankins said. “They thought it was a great idea and immediately went into action. I want to commend their foresight and their efforts.”

Baldwin County Commission Chairman Chris Elliott said the they have reached out to people in Texas and southeast Louisiana to let them know that the Coliseum is available if needed.

“The Coliseum is always ready to use as a disaster shelter, and we here in Baldwin County know from first-hand experience how bad a hurricane like this can be,” Elliott said. “We want to help if we can, and we want to be available to them if they need."

Hankins said he has also been in contact with Robertsdale Mayor Charles Murphy and crews were on hand Tuesday, working outside the facility.

“They’ve been here all morning,” Hankins said, “and I have been assured that city workers are at our disposal if we need them to come inside the facility.”

The 38,000 square-foot facility, located on Fairground Road, three miles east of Alabama 59 in Robertsdale, was completed in 2008 using a community facilities loan from USDA Rural Development, applied for by FEMA, the Baldwin County Commission and the Cattle and Fair Association.

“We had just come through Hurricane Ivan (in 2004) and Hurricane Katrina (in 2005) and there was no place in Baldwin County at that time where people could go to find shelter,” Hankins said. “We were looking to expand and I said as long as we were going to expand, we might as well build a facility for people to use that have no place else to go in times of emergency.”

The shelter was built to withstand 200-mile-per-hour winds and house up to 3,900 people, nearly 2,000 on a long-term basis, Hankins said. The shelter includes four full restrooms (two men’s and two women’s) complete with shower facilities. The fairgrounds also houses a 78,000 square-foot, 2,200-seat arena, which can also be used.

If the facility is called into service, Hankins said, FEMA would take over the facility and coordinating operations would be the responsibility of the Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency.

“We would follow normal protocol in opening up shelters for use,” said EMA Director Reggie Chitwood. “We have already reached out to the Red Cross to use volunteers, Health Department officials for any issues that may arise and the Sheriff’s Office to provide security.”

Any donations, such as food, bedding and other materials would be handled by the local VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster), Chitwood said.

“This is a unique situation and something we’re learning as we go,” he said. “We are more than happy to use whatever facilities we have at our disposal to help other areas and if we are not needed, it is at the very least a good training tool for us to use when we are needed.”

One issue addressed with using the facility is that it could pre-empt the Baldwin County Fair, which is set to begin Sept. 19.

“I believe that human life is more important,” Hankins said, “and if we have an opportunity to help people, we shouldn’t hesitate to take it. We can always make other arrangements for the Fair.”